Skip to main content

Is this the end of the world? Why would the gods let this happen?

Pompeii
(2014)

(SPOILERS) Gladiator meets Titanic, and every bit as mechanically fashioned and empty-headed as the pitch sounds. You’d expect nothing better from Paul W Anderson, a technically efficient but soulless director blessed with a determinedly mediocre career. I wouldn’t be surprised if he genuinely believed he was making something of emotional heft and tragic beauty, his chance to win credibility with a sword-and-sandals epic doubling as an almighty tearjerker. In volcano-busting 3D.


I didn’t watch the 3D version, I hasten to add, but the third act disaster movie trappings are clearly intended for those donning such spectacles; flaming molten chunks cascading hither and thither. This section manages to ape both Titanic (rescuing the girl while dodging the villain) and 2012 (outrunning earthquakes, but without the sense of humour). Anderson can put together an action sequence, and he also has a fair eye for integrated effects work, but as his filmography proves he’s never been able to make us care about his characters. This is his first love story, so the failing on this occasion is particularly glaring.


The screenplay is credited to Janet Scott and Lee Batchler (Batman Forever) and Michael Robert Johnson (one of five names on the first Downey Jr Sherlock Holmes) and I can only assume there were no conversations along the lines of “Perhaps we could come up with something better here?” Anderson begins with a quote from Pliny the Younger describing the disaster, which might wrongly suggest attempts at authenticity (Anderson alleges the all the volcano business is accurate geologically accurate… great balls of fire aside – which constitute an unerring threat).


That’s as good as it gets, since everyone here is wretchedly modern in sensibility; not least heroine Cassia (Emily Browning), a headstrong young woman seemingly oblivious to Roman customs and etiquette. But then, she has utterly doting parents (Carrie Anne Moss, perpetually under-used, and Jared Harris; both add a bit of class to the proceedings) who wouldn’t even think of such a backward custom as arranging a marriage for her. She’s like Kate Winslet in Titanic, you see, rebelling against the codes of her time as if granted foreknowledge from the gaudy heights of 21st century California. Accordingly, the makers appear to have done their research by watching Roman epics from the ‘50s.


Her parents live in Pompeii, and daddy is attempting to get funding for a new amphitheatre from Keifer Sutherland’s Senator Corvus. Corvus is a thoroughly rotten rotter; he not only has designs on Cassia, but he killed the parents of poor pouting Milo (Kit Harington) when he was but a wee lamb. Milo subsequently entered slavery only to emerge a positively ripped 20-something kick-ass gladiator (so… slavery’s good for your health regimen?) Most curiously, he’s also a peerless horse whisperer. One wonders where he got the time for such sensitivity amid the arterial spray of bested opponents. Ah, I know; he comes from a tribe of Celtic horsemen, which means it must be in his genes! It also shows he’s a deep and whistful soul, so when he first encounters Cassia she has no choice but to fall for his animal-loving humanity (“Stop! Let him help the horse”; which he does by snapping it’s neck, I have no idea quite how strong you’d need to be to do that – Hulk or possibly Wolverine could manage it – but it seems Milo’s more than got the goods).


This is just the first of numerous unintentionally funny moments throughout, including Milo’s Inigo Montaya revenge fetish and his displays of quite astonishing stoicism (“15 lashes and he didn’t make a sound”). At least Keifer, relishing the chance to play a bad guy, and taking a stab at something approximating his father’s flair for ghoulish refinement, seems to get the joke (one that clearly didn’t dawn on Anderson). During the centre piece gladiatorial, a re-enactment of Corvus’ victory over the Celts is staged by Harris’ Severus. Unfortunately, no one counted on the estimable fighting skills of Milo and pal Atticus (Adele Akinnuoye-Agbaje), and the “Romans” are thoroughly trounced. Turning to his host, Corvus comments “Severus, this is not exactly how I remembered it”. He also makes a point of Alan Rickman-ing excessive orders, with an ever-more frustrated demand to “Kill them! Kill them all!


Anderson is best known for making one half decent movie with Event Horizon, ruining what was commonly held to be a great script for Soldier, killing any last shreds of respect the Alien series had with Alien vs. Predator and inflicting three of the five Resident Evils on the world (he wrote all five; the script for Pompeii is so perfunctory I thought he must have pitched in, but it seems not).  Where he does exhibit a degree of slick competence is in staging action but, like (for example) Len Wiseman, this has little impact because his pictures are so bland and faceless. The introduction to adult Milo sees him kill a series of arena antagonists in slow motion without pausing to adjust his leather skirt; Harington, with ne’er a hair out of place and an expression that’s more sullen than moody, looks like he’s filming a shampoo advert (just look at the post below for the effects of a bracing lava shower on one's perm). It’s no more than you’d expect from the director; he sees Harington playing an affecting and sympathetic character in Game of Thrones, thinks I’ll have some of that guy, but forgets to include any of the ingredients that would allow him to be relatable.


Still, the brutal arena games include some creative moments, the re-enactment chief among them. I’m unconvinced that Milo could do all the amazing things he does without tying his chain in knots, but I’ll let that pass. Less successful is Anderson’s penchant for having his young hero leap upon his adversaries from a great height at any opportunity. When it comes to the all-important eruption, there’s a lot of dashing about and increasingly absurd delays of the inevitable. There are duels aplenty amid the ash and devastation, including a fight to the death in the rubble of the arena (Sasha Roiz enjoys being a bastardly Roman almost as much as Sutherland) and a chariot race through the exploding streets. Atticus even saves a child at one point, who will doubtless die minutes later anyway. But it’s the thought that counts.


Harington and Browning may die in an everlasting clinch, but it only makes dramatic sense to off your protagonists if you care about them. For all the significant failings of his last two movies, James Cameron was able to make audiences care about his love stories. It’s not even necessarily the case that Anderson sets up something cruder than Jimbo. Rather, the latter knows how to fashion the rudiments of character (and they only ever are rudiments). Here, the love story amounts to naught and it’s the readiest explanation of why Pompeii was an expensive bomb ($108m gross worldwide on a $100m budget). It’s so non-descript, so unassumingly derivative, there’s barely a conversation to be had here. Never mind, Resident Evil 6 is just around the corner.





Comments

Popular posts from this blog

No matter how innocent you are, or how hard you try, they’ll find you guilty.

The Wrong Man (1956) (SPOILERS) I hate to say it, but old Truffaut called it right on this one. More often than not showing obeisance to the might of Hitchcock during his career-spanning interview, the French critic turned director was surprisingly blunt when it came to The Wrong Man . He told Hitch “ your style, which has found its perfection in the fiction area, happens to be in total conflict with the aesthetics of the documentary and that contradiction is apparent throughout the picture ”. There’s also another, connected issue with this, one Hitch acknowledged: too much fidelity to the true story upon which the film is based.

Another case of the screaming oopizootics.

Doctor Who Season 14 – Worst to Best The best Doctor Who season? In terms of general recognition and unadulterated celebration, there’s certainly a strong case to be made for Fourteen. The zenith of Robert Holmes and Philip Hinchcliffe’s plans for the series finds it relinquishing the cosy rapport of the Doctor and Sarah in favour of the less-trodden terrain of a solo adventure and underlying conflict with new companion Leela. More especially, it finds the production team finally stretching themselves conceptually after thoroughly exploring their “gothic horror” template over the course of the previous two seasons (well, mostly the previous one).

He’s so persistent! He always gets his man.

Speed (1994) (SPOILERS) It must have been a couple of decades since I last viewed Speed all the way through, so it’s pleasing to confirm that it holds up. Sure, Jan de Bont’s debut as a director can’t compete with the work of John McTiernan, for whom he acted as cinematographer and who recommended de Bont when he passed on the picture, but he nevertheless does a more than competent work. Which makes his later turkeys all the more tragic. And Keanu and Sandra Bullock display the kind of effortless chemistry you can’t put a price tag on. And then there’s Dennis Hopper, having a great old sober-but-still-looning time.

He is a brigand and a lout. Pay him no serious mention.

The Wind and the Lion (1975) (SPOILERS) John Milius called his second feature a boy’s-own adventure, on the basis of the not-so-terrified responses of one of those kidnapped by Sean Connery’s Arab Raisuli. Really, he could have been referring to himself, in all his cigar-chomping, gun-toting reactionary glory, dreaming of the days of real heroes. The Wind and the Lion rather had its thunder stolen by Jaws on release, and it’s easy to see why. As polished as the picture is, and simultaneously broad-stroke and self-aware in its politics, it’s very definitely a throwback to the pictures of yesteryear. Only without the finger-on-the-pulse contemporaneity of execution that would make Spielberg and Lucas’ genre dives so memorable in a few short years’ time.

But everything is wonderful. We are in Paris.

Cold War (2018) (SPOILERS) Pawel Pawlikowski’s elliptical tale – you can’t discuss Cold War without saying “elliptical” at least once – of frustrated love charts a course that almost seems to be a caricature of a certain brand of self-congratulatorily tragic European cinema. It was, it seems “ loosely inspired ” by his parents (I suspect I see where the looseness comes in), but there’s a sense of calculation to the progression of this love story against an inescapable political backdrop that rather diminishes it.

The game is rigged, and it does not reward people who play by the rules.

Hustlers (2019) (SPOILERS) Sold as a female Goodfellas – to the extent that the producers had Scorsese in mind – this strippers-and-crime tale is actually a big, glossy puff piece, closer to Todd Phillips as fashioned by Lorene Scarfia. There are some attractive performances in Hustlers, notably from Constance Wu, but for all its “progressive” women work male objectification to their advantage posturing, it’s incredibly traditional and conservative deep down.

What do they do, sing madrigals?

The Singing Detective (2003) Icon’s remake of the 1986 BBC serial, from a screenplay by Dennis Potter himself. The Singing Detective fares less well than Icon’s later adaptation of Edge of Darkness , even though it’s probably more faithful to Potter’s original. Perhaps the fault lies in the compression of six episodes into a feature running a quarter of that time, but the noir fantasy and childhood flashbacks fail to engage, and if the hospital reality scans better, it too suffers eventually.

They literally call themselves “Decepticons”. That doesn’t set off any red flags?

Bumblebee  (2018) (SPOILERS) Bumblebee is by some distance the best Transformers movie, simply by dint of having a smattering of heart (one might argue the first Shia LaBeouf one also does, and it’s certainly significantly better than the others, but it’s still a soulless Michael Bay “machine”). Laika VP and director Travis Knight brings personality to a series that has traditionally consisted of shamelessly selling product, by way of a nostalgia piece that nods to the likes of Herbie (the original), The Iron Giant and even Robocop .

How would Horatio Alger have handled this situation?

Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1998) (SPOILERS) Gilliam’s last great movie – The Zero Theorem (2013) is definitely underrated, but I don’t think it’s that underrated – Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas could easily have been too much. At times it is, but in such instances, intentionally so. The combination of a visual stylist and Hunter S Thompson’s embellished, propulsive turn of phrase turns out, for the most part, to be a cosmically aligned affair, embracing the anarchic abandon of Raoul Duke and Doctor Gonzo’s Las Vegas debauch while contriving to pull back at crucial junctures in order to engender a perspective on all this hedonism. Would Alex Cox, who exited stage left, making way for the Python, have produced something interesting? I suspect, ironically, he would have diluted Thompson in favour of whatever commentary preoccupied him at the time (indeed, Johnny Depp said as much: “ Cox had this great material to work with and he took it and he added his own stuff to it ”). Plus

You don’t know anything about this man, and he knows everything about you.

The Man Who Knew Too Much (1956) (SPOILERS) Hitchcock’s two-decades-later remake of his British original. It’s undoubtedly the better-known version, but as I noted in my review of the 1934 film, it is very far from the “ far superior ” production Truffaut tried to sell the director on during their interviews. Hitchcock would only be drawn – in typically quotable style – that “ the first version is the work of a talented amateur and the second was made by a professional ”. For which, read a young, creatively fired director versus one clinically going through the motions, occasionally inspired by a shot or sequence but mostly lacking the will or drive that made the first The Man Who Knew Too Much such a pleasure from beginning to end.